Murder! But How Foul? Determination, Existentialism and Rationalization in Twentieth-Century American Novels with Transgressive Protagonists
Dale, John Frederick
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Humans tend to blunt the horror of transgressive violence by "containing" it in a potentially explicatory system. This thesis investigates whether a range of transgressive protagonists from canonical twentieth-century American novels are "contained" in this way by reference to philosophical or sociological systems powerful at the time of writing, and further whether the systems involved track the roughly mid-century switch of emphasis from determinism to philosophies valorizing individual autonomy (such as existentialism). These propositions were found to be broadly justified, but there were significant nuances. For example, Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, at first rejoices in his autonomy from normative ethical standards, but comes to realize that such autonomy can exist only as long as he confines himself to the world of the imagination. On the other hand, Clyde Griffiths, the socially and economically determined protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy, achieves a kind of proto-existential isolation in his quest for an understanding of his "criminal" responsibility. Richard Wright, from mid-century, created both determinist and existential transgressive protagonists, but his work is most obviously characterized by a third element--a half-unexplained volcanic rage. In many of the novels examined it was found that horror at the crime of the transgressive protagonist was further derailed by narratological ploys, including the manipulation of the reader's engagement with, or sympathy for, the protagonist--sometimes by the use of humour. Other cross-currents were apparent; the achievement of self-transcendence in some of the protagonists (e.g. Humbert Humbert and Clyde Griffiths), and the foregrounding of performativity in others (e.g. Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's Ripleiad). Most remarkably, all of the novels investigated demonstrate a tacit belief in the need to recuperate the protagonist, who is not only a transgressor, but also a humanist subject who is intrinsically of at least potential value. There is an almost unquestioned impulse to somehow address the protagonist's fall from grace. It is further clear that this concern disappears from "anti-humanist" novels featuring transgressive protagonists from the end of the century, such as Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.